Parents want teachers to address their child’s individual needs. Teachers want this too. They want to be able to work with and understand the students they teach. They especially want to help the students in their classes who have exceptional differences. This is difficult to do when class sizes are too large.
If elementary teachers have 20 to 30 students in class, it will be not be easy to address the individual needs of children. When high school teachers have 30 students per class, and you multiply that by 5 classes per day, they end up with 150 students. Special education co-teachers can help but sometimes they rotate to various classes and also have too many students.
For schools that are lucky enough to have music and the arts, classes called specials, teachers also see large class sizes. How do they manage to reach students who need extra help, who might thrive as a musician or artist with a little more attention? Students with disabilities and gifted and talented students especially need these classes. They require the individualized assistance a teacher can provide.
If, in any of those classes, students with differences are added, students with learning and reading disabilities, students who have behavioral and emotional problems, students who are gifted and talented, English Language Learners, or students who have medical needs, the job of a teacher is compounded in ways that affect how they will reach all of the students in that class. Students with differences can be disruptive in class if they don’t get the assistance they require, and this can be difficult for all students.
Also, students often show up at school with a myriad of difficulties that don’t fall into any particular special education category, but which are critical nonetheless. Students might be homeless, have experienced trauma, be hungry, have mental health problems, and much more.
The problem of large class sizes and inclusion is not just found in America. In 2013, Gordon Thomas of the Alberta Teachers Association described a class of 37 in a worst case scenario. Out of students found in one class, four had learning disabilities, five were in transition from other provinces, one exhibited serious behavioral issues, three were repeating the course, seven were functioning below grade level, and one was chronically absent because of a dysfunctional home life.
With inclusion, students may be placed into a general class, but their differences don’t go away.
Those who criticize public schools state that schools are run like factories. Yet these are the same people who’ve been against lowering class size. They have failed for years to address the need for smaller classes. They certainly haven’t considered the dilemma teachers face with overcrowded classrooms and inclusion. And they don’t seem to notice the private schools and sometimes charters that advertise smaller class sizes.
There have been a number of studies and attempts to lower class size, but education reformers have been against it for years. They don’t want to increase funds for smaller class sizes, but they do endorse student retention in third grade, which is also expensive. Retention is known for its bad effects on students. Lowering class size has been shown to have positive results.
In 1985, Tennessee began a 4-year study called Project STAR, meant to determine the effect of smaller class size in early grades. The study found that smaller class sizes, especially at the beginning of a child’s school experience, improves their performance on cognitive tests. This was especially pronounced for economically disadvantaged and minority students. But it helped all children.
The STAR study took place when Lamar Alexander was Governor of Tennessee. Alexander, who was also education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, has been a Tennessee senator for many years. As chief architect of the recent Every Student Succeeds Act, I don’t recall Alexander ever mentioning lowering class sizes—not even for children in early grades. He also supported Betsy DeVos for education secretary.
Instead of adequately incorporating the findings of Project STAR, student-to-teacher ratios have continued to rise in most places. In 2013, then Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and Bill Gates began floating the idea that class sizes should go up even higher! Teachers with larger classes would get more pay.
When Florida citizens passed the class size amendment in 2002, lowering classes to manageable numbers that seemed to make sense, then Governor Jeb Bush said he had “a couple of devious plans if this thing passes.” And true, the Florida legislature has continued to push back on class size, most recently using “flexibility” to skirt around the amendment.
Often these same people push for so-called personalized learning on the computer replacing teachers. But the human factor is critical, and teachers with smaller, manageable class sizes will make a difference for all students—especially students with disabilities or who are gifted and talented.
In 2014, the National Education Policy Center reported that money saved today by increasing class sizes will result in more substantial social and educational costs in the future. They stated, The critics are mistaken. Class size matters. Class size is one of the most studied education policies, and an extremely rigorous body of research demonstrates the importance of class size in positively influencing student achievement.
Some argue that teachers need better preparation to teach fewer students in an inclusion setting, and also more classroom space. Certainly, improving the school structure to allow for smaller class sizes is required. The time is right to renovate and build new public schools. Teachers I know are not opposed to learning new instructional approaches for a smaller class set-up.
Here is a list of how lowering class size can help with inclusion.
- It closes the achievement gap.
- Children socialize better with their peers.
- Teachers get to better know students.
- Teachers can study student differences.
- Parents are able to work closer with teachers.
- Smaller group interactions can take place.
- It’s easier for teachers to bring students together.
- Teachers are enabled to focus more on reading.
- Children start school better prepared.
- Teachers have time to study differences.
- It helps to end the stigma surrounding disabilities.
- Better, more personalized IEPs are written.
- Teachers can pinpoint learning difficulties earlier.
- Teachers could better recognize mental health problems.
It’s time to lower class sizes especially for classes that involve inclusion.